The Rise and Fall of the KKK
When history buffs think about the term “Progressive Era reform” they may imagine some of the early 20th century’s biggest milestones; perhaps the Armistice of Compiègne that ended WWI, or the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act. However, some scholars might be shocked to learn that between 1915 and 1929, the Ku Klux Klan were part of such reforms from time to time.
Dr. Natalie Ring, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of The Problem South: Region, Empire and the New Liberal State, 1880-1930, held a lecture at the Dallas Holocaust Museum Center for Education and Tolerance on Dec. 12 about the turbulent and often contrary nature of the 20th century KKK and its statewide presence.
Both informative and at times puzzling, given the image of the KKK, Ring presented her lecture with the subtitle The Double-Headed Hydra. The reference to the mythological beast illustrated a major point of the professor’s talk: much of what the KKK did during the Jim Crow era in Dallas, in Texas, and across the U.S., was intended by them to improve society, despite their narrow boundaries of what was proper in society and their tendency toward violence outside of the law.
Ring painted a picture of a religious, political and social organization that was not on the fringe of the community but rather an organization that had major influence within society. This was the resurrection of the original 1800s Klan, she said, a second phase in the history of the group. Ring revealed that Dallas had the largest Klan chapter – Klavern 66 – in America during that period. Members could be found in the police department, the Sheriffs Department, on the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and a multitude of other civic establishments within the city.
What made the reformed Klan so popular in Texas is something that the professor couldn’t pin down to just one answer, she admitted.
“Why so large in Texas?” Ring pondered to those assembled. “One of the things we were kind of struggling with in my class is why did people join the Klan when a lot of what the Klan believed in was what Americans in general believed in the 1920s, particularly their hostility to immigration, their allegiance to White supremacy, [and] Protestantism in the 1920s.
“The historians are still trying to tease out of that distinction.”
Ring credited publisher and former U.S. Rep. Thomas Watson as one of those who supported a rebirth of the KKK. She spoke about the Leo Frank case of 1915, an instance that involved the only known lynching of a Jewish man in the United States.
“He became obsessed with the Leo Frank case [and] published many, many scathing anti-Semitic articles on Leo Frank,” she said. After the lynching of Frank in Marietta, Ga., Watson published a piece that was aimed at White Southerners.
“He essentially said to his audience, and speaking to Georgia in particular, that he believed that they should establish another Ku Klux Klan to establish home rule,” Ring stated. “And the phrase ‘home rule’ essentially referred to the belief that White Southerners should assume complete and total control of their own state without any intervention in the federal government.”